The making of India

Print edition : February 17, 2017

One can legitimately speculate whether the inhabitants of the Indus Civilisation actually thought of themselves as one people distinct from those who belonged to other areas and cultures. Here, the excavated Indus civilisation site at Bhirrana, Haryana. Photo: Photo Courtesy : ASI

By Asoka's reign, the boundaries of the Mauryan empire extended from the Hindu Kush mountains to deltaic Bengal and Karnataka. It may not be held to be over-speculative to argue that the concept for a country designated "Jambudiva" in Asoka's Minor Rock Edict I corresponded to the empire that had now been created. Here Asokan edicts in Nittur village, Karnataka. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Yuan Chawng, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who came to India in the first half of the seventh century. His grasp of India as a geographical entity was remarkable. Photo: Wiki Commons

A depiction of the poet Amir Khusrau (d. 1325), who was of Turkic descent. In 1318, he wrote in Persian what is perhaps the first patriotic poem for India in any language.

A painting by Narsing—reproduced from the book "Episodes in the Life of Akbar—for the Akbarnama depicting Akbar holding a discussion in the Ibadat Khana with spiritual representatives of various faiths, including Jesuits. India as a political unit played a large part in the theory of the nature of sovereignty that Akbar and Abu'l Fazl espoused. Photo: Courtesy: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Raja Ram Mohan Roy. In a letter of 1828, he argued that “the distinction of castes, introducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions among them (Indians) entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling”. Photo: The Hindu Archives

India grew into a nation in the course of its struggle for independence. Here, Mahathma Gandhi , accompanied by Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and other party members, walking from a wayside railway station (near Delhi ) to a "Harijan" colony where the All India Congress Committee Meeting was to be held. Photo: The Hindu Archives

IT may be held to be axiomatic that some similarities in cultural traits and some notion of territory in geographical terms are essential preconditions for the emergence of the concept of a country. The present state of languages in the world shows that among primitive people living in isolated communities the number of languages spoken tends to be very large and these too tend to belong to numerous independent language-families. 1 As human interaction grew in several regions through exchanges of goods or by assimilation of various communities under a single dominant power, the number of languages tended to become smaller. Some developments might have ensued as an outcome of the neolithic revolution that made surplus production possible owing to the emergence of agriculture. But agricultural communities tended to remain separate until, after gradual evolution, towns and states emerged almost together, resting partly on the surplus extracted from the countryside. Then the regions of spoken or literary languages also tended to expand, often through state patronage, as one can see from the use of Aramaic all over West Asia, including Afghanistan by the third century B.C.

In the Indian subcontinent, the “Urban Revolution” can be dated to the middle third millennium B.C. when the Indus Civilisation emerged with well-marked towns and a set of common features found over a large territory. These included not only identical patterns of town building (straight streets, drainage, citadels, etc.) but also uniform measures of weight and length, standardised baked bricks, uniform script (suggesting the use of a single language at least by the elite), seals, similar zoomorphic deities and the archaeologists’ favourite marker, viz. similar pottery. What is astonishing is the extent over which the uniformities occur: much of the Punjab, the whole of Sindh, Gujarat, northern Rajasthan, and Haryana, a matter of perhaps 70,000 square kilometres as against 4,14,770 sq km, the extent of undivided India.

It is difficult to imagine how these features could have been attained over such a large zone except under the aegis of a powerful state, especially in its initial phase. The prevalence of similar religious beliefs and rituals is also to be deduced from the ideographs and figures on the Indus seals. Unfortunately, we cannot decipher the script let alone understand the language. But one can legitimately speculate whether, given so many shared features, the inhabitants of the territory of the Indus Civilisation actually thought of themselves as one people distinct from those who belonged to other areas and other cultures. At least the name “Meluhha” given to their territory by Mesopotamians 2 suggests that such a recognition did exist at least among outsiders.

The collapse of the Indus Civilisation, c. 1900 B.C., was followed by the spread of different regional cultures, in which archaeologists see few common features except in negative terms, such as absence of towns, baked bricks, writing, etc. So far it has proved impossible to identify the culture in which Rgvedic hymns were composed with any particular archaeological culture of the second millennium B.C.

The Rgveda, the earliest text (conveyed through memory and spoken word) of the Indian subcontinent, mainly contains hymns connected with sacrificial rituals, but for this very purpose, it deals with mundane human wishes and desires that are sought to be attained through rituals. It reveals little concern with territory beyond the domains ( rashtra) of tribes or tribal rulers ( rajan) ( RV IV, 42.1). 3 The “people” ( vis) within the tribe are only distinguished from the ruler-warriors ( rajanyas, kshatriyas) and priests ( Brahmanas). A sharp distinction is drawn between the Arya (“noble”) and the dasyu, a hostile people apparently living alongside the Aryas. It is only the mentions of rivers by name that offer some indication of the geographical locations of the authors of the hymns. In the 10th mandala, the river Hymn ( Nadi Sukta) ( RV X, 75) accurately lists the rivers of the Indus basin besides the Ganga and Yamuna. 4 This constituted the zone of Sapta Sindhavah (seven rivers), a name that stands for rivers only ( RV I, 32.12) not for land through which the rivers flow ( RV III, 74.27). It is clear that Sapta Sindhavah hardly represented as yet a country, contrary to the Vendidad in the Avestan Corpus where “Hapta Hindu” appears as one of the 16 regions created by Ahuramazda. 5 What is remarkable is that while confined to such a tribal or parochial environment the Creation Hymn ( RV X, 129) offers us not only a perception of the universe but also a query about the puzzle of its “creation”. There was just the One ( Ekam) and chaotic waters which through tapas (warmth) and desire ( kama) transformed itself into the universe. But the uncertainty of it all is proclaimed in the last admission that no one (not even the One) can know how the universe has come into being!

The much maligned Purusha Sukta ( RV X, 90) is important in that it seeks to answer the same question by invoking the ritual of sacrifice. Out of the corpse of the Purusha (Divine Man), who was sacrificed as an offering by the gods, arose the Sky, the Earth, the Air, the Moon and the Sun as well as all living beings, including humanity forming the four classes (the designation varna is not used). It is remarkable again that such philosophical speculation should take place in what was yet a tribal society, where even the concept of a region was not present.

Yet despite such concern about the universe, one fails to find any idea of a country in the Rgveda. Even the concept of a favoured land seems to emerge only in later Vedic texts: When the Atharvaveda prays for fever to be banished to Anga and Magadha ( AV V, 22.14), 6 on the one hand, and to Gandhara, Mujavan and Balhikas (Bactrians) ( AV V, 22.5, 7, 9, 14), on the other, we can infer that these are treated as hostile borderlands of a heartland zone, stretching from the Sutlej to the Ghaghara, beyond which the condemned territories lay. But by such reduction, we cannot assume that the Atharvavedic seers had any positive sentiments of affiliation with the remaining territory. They might have been banishing fever to hostile areas simply because they were known to be distant, and fevers needed to be kept away as far as possible!

First indication of territory

The first positive indication of a large tract of territory defined in political terms comes only with the listing of 16 Mahajanapadas ( Sola mahajanapadas) in the sixth century B.C. 7 At first sight these seem to represent only an enlargement of the “favoured zone” of the Atharvaveda, now extending from Kamboja (Kabul valley) to Anga, beyond Magadha. The obvious change is that the statement becomes explicit and positive, the 16 regions being specified and considered to constitute what may for the first time be called a primitive concept of a country, which could be deemed later to grow into India. But two curious features cling to it that demand some reflection. First, the list also reminds us of the late Avestan “16 good lands and countries”, centred on Afghanistan, but including surrounding regions such as the Punjab. 8 A parallel process of country formation was thus going on in the area of the Iranian civilisation as well—and, curiously enough, the number 16 was shared.

The second curiosity is the fact that the names of the regions are in plural as if they refer not to the regions but to their inhabitants—a practice that is maintained in Asoka’s edicts in its territorial references. I am not a linguist, but it seems to me that this is a manifestation of the practice of associating a territory inescapably with a tribe. Yet how by now the distinction between tribe and region had taken place in practice is shown by a reference in the Pali Canon to the Pasenadi ruler of Kosala, claiming that “The Master (Buddha) is a Kosalan, I too am a Kosalan” ( Majjhima Nikaya), 9 although the Buddha belonged to the Sakya jati, or tribe.

Some of the regions now were, however, shedding their tribal garb, with kingship turning into a despotic institution. Some of them, therefore, came to be identified no longer by their tribal but by their territorial designations, such as the kingdoms of Kosala, Magadha and Avanti. It has been argued that the emergence of these kingdoms became possible by a series of developments emanating from the use of iron which besides providing better weaponry to rulers also helped extending and intensifying agriculture and thus contributing to the growth of commerce and making larger surplus available for the states, which took more and more the form of strong monarchies. The economic significance of this new form of state was marked by the issuance of coinage in the form of punch-marked coins, called karshapana or kahapana, suggesting their link with tax on agriculture, the first two syllables, karsha or kaha, meaning agriculture. 10

The grouping of these territorial states in the form of 16 Mahajanapadas thus marked only the first stage in the evolution of the perception of larger territorial entities in the age of Mahavira and Buddha (c. 500 B.C.). Even if some of these states fought with each other, this in itself was a sign of structural affinities and cultural relationships between them. Thus arose an area curiously defined by Kautilya (IX. 1. 17-20) as Chakravarti-kshetra, constituting the region between the Himalayas and the sea where kings were expected to fight with each other for dominance. 11

Seizing Magadha and other kingdoms, Chandragupta Maurya (c. 322-298 B.C.) founded the Mauryan empire, whose boundaries by Asoka’s reign (c. 270-234 B.C.) extended from the Hindu Kush mountains to deltaic Bengal and Karnataka. It may not be held to be over-speculative to argue that the concept for a country designated Jambudvipa (“Rose-apple island”) in Asoka’s Minor Rock Edict I, 12 which is found inscribed at seven places within Karnataka and southern Andhra besides 10 [places] in the north, 13 corresponded to the empire that had now been created. 14 Indeed, the extensive spread of the inscriptions carrying the reference to Jambudvipa shows that by Jambudvipa was now meant the whole of India and not simply northern India, the Chakravarti-kshetra of Kautilyan tradition.

In the first century B.C., Kharavela, the famous Jain ruler of Kalinga, in his Hathi-gumpha inscription in Prakrit refers to “Bharadvasa” (Bharata-varsha) as the territory where his campaigns and conquests had taken place. 15 Since Kharavela’s own claims to superiority or supremacy extended from the Pandya kingdom to Mathura, his “Bharata-varsha” like Asoka’s Jambudvipa must be deemed to have embraced the whole of India. By his further use of the name “Uttarapatha” for the part of the country containing Magadha, Kharavela implies that the broad division of India, or Bharata, into Uttarapatha (north India) and Dakshinapatha (Deccan and south India) was already coming into use.

The territorial expanse was, indeed, not the only defining factor for the emerging concept of India. The cultural aspects, too, were at play in demarcating Asoka’s “Jambudvipa”. In Rock Edict XIII, Asoka noted that among the Yonas (Greeks) there were no Brahmanas or Sramanas 16 giving a defining role to the coexisting religions of Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism and Ajivikas (all grouped together in his Pillar Edict VII) 17 for what constituted India of his time. (Buddhism was yet to cross the borders of its country of origin.) This also implies that a massive religious “diffusion”’ had taken place in the Indian subcontinent, with the Brahmans and Sramanas, that is, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism, being found everywhere in the country.

Evolution of caste system

In tandem with religion, there also took place the gradual evolution of what we now know as the caste system. The evolution of this system has been traced by scholars through the late Vedic texts such as Brahmanas and early Sutras.

In Aitareya Brahmana (VII, 29.4) Sudras though still accepted as part of Aryan society were deemed fit to be only “the servants of another” with no rights so that they could even be killed at will. The status of Sudra was unalterable whatever be his circumstances ( Panchavimsa Brahmana, VI, 1.11). The Satapatha Brahmana not only bars the Sudra from sacrificial rites but even prohibits the consecrated person from directly speaking to him (III, 1. 19.10) and a “holy teacher” was not to touch him or look at him (xiv, 1.31). From here the next step was to establish a structure of fixed hierarchy of varnas and jatis, the latter as endogamous communities within the varnas, constituting a social system, based on what Suvira Jaiswal aptly calls “caste ideology”. 18 It was not only an empire and the spread of Indic religions but also the remarkable diffusion of the caste system that, whether we today like it or not, gave India a decisive cultural unity.

It has been held also that the belief in karma based on the transmigration of soul had been one great instrument of legitimising the caste system. 19 It can, of course, be debated whether this concept came first in Jainism and Buddhism or in the Upanishads. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, III, 2, VI, 2.13-15, and Chhandogya Upanishad, V, 3-10, its knowledge has been claimed as being a secret held among the Kshatriyas that was being revealed to a Brahman priest for the first time. 20 And we know that both Lord Mahivira and Gautama Buddha were Kshatriyas.

The Buddha’s “dialogues” as contained in the Pali Canon show the use of both banna or vanna ( varna) and jati in their well-known senses. Here, for the first time, the Indian identity by the existence of caste finds a clear expression. The Majjhima Nikaya represents the Buddha as remarking: “In Yona-Kambuja and adjacent regions ( janapadas) there are only two varnas ( vanna), masters ( ayya) and slaves ( dasa)”, 21 thus in effect defining the indigenous by the institution of the four varnas.

But what was indigenous yet had to take time to spread all over India. This surely explains the limited extent of the “Aryavarta”, lying between the Himalayas and Vindhyas, as defined by the Manusmriti (II, 21-22). Referring to foreigners as Mlechhas, it says (II, 23-24) theirs are the lands where Brahmans do not perform sacrifices nor should the twice-born dwell. 22 The Aryavarta thus might be “sacred land” but was not yet India since it remained confined to north India. To Manu, quite obviously, the Deccan and south India were still outside the pale of the caste system as well as Brahmanical ritual. When they came within that pale, they would come within India.

The Chinese and Persian evidence

I have examined up till now how within India unifying factors at the level of political integration, caste diffusion and Brahmanic and Sramanic religions were creating the basis for the recognition of India as a country by its own inhabitants. Now I would turn to how a Chinese scholar in the seventh century and a Central Asian scholar in the 11th perceived the civilisation and extent of this country.

Yuan Chwang (Pinyin: Xuan Zhuang), the most learned of all Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, came to India in the first half of the seventh century. Yuan Chwang’s grasp of India as a geographical entity is remarkable. He inserts a general chapter on India immediately after he closes his account of Kapisa (the Kabul territory, coming after Central Asian states). 23 It almost seems as if he had in mind the future Durand Line in order to set the frontier of India towards the north-west! He next wonders about the country’s name. The Chinese name then current for India was “Indu” (In-tu), obviously a variant of the designation “Hindu” (which the Iranians had given to all trans-Indus territory, from their own form of the name for the river Indus + Sanskrit = Sindhu, the Iranian “h” replacing the Indic “s”). Yuan Chwang’s successor among Chinese travellers, I-tsing (Ye-jing), c. 695, knew that “Indu” was a name given to India by the “Hu” or Central Asian and Iranian people, 24 but Yuan Chwang wondered why Indians, among whom indu meant the moon, did not use it for their own country. Here too I-tsing recognised that the Indians themselves called their country Arya-desa, “noble land” or “Madhya-desa” (Middle Land; compare “Middle Kingdom” for China!). Yuan Chwang himself says elsewhere that the “Brahmans’ country”, obviously “Brahma-varta”, was a favourite name for the country among Indians. By this interpretation of the name, the identification of the domain of caste hierarchy with India becomes manifest. But Yuan Chwang makes still another statement which [Thomas] Watters interprets to mean that “the natives of India had only designations of their own states such as Magadha and Kausambi, and that they were without a general name [for India] under which these could be included”. For common people, then, it was the region in which they lived, rather than the country, that usually mattered. Yet Yuan Chwang’s own chapter on India is important in that he unconsciously provides us with a view of the common factors that then defined India to a foreigner: many common features of ordinary life; the two main religions, Brahmanism and Buddhism; the caste system; and some important social customs. 25

It is possible to argue that while the Chinese evidence is good enough for what it tells us about the Indians’ own perception of their country at the time, what the Chinese themselves thought about India would not have had any effect on the Indians’ own perceptions. This was not however the case with the Perso-Arab tradition about India, of which Alberuni (c. 1035) was the great representative. It not only gave a new nomenclature—of which Hindustan for the country and “Hindu” for its major religion are outstanding examples—but added a new substance, as I hope to show, to the idea of India.

Achaemenid inscriptions

Linguistically, the Achaemenid inscriptions from the fifth century B.C. speak of a province of the Iranian empire called “Hindu” and “Hindush” which being the equivalent of Sanskrit “Sindhu”, as we have seen, represented probably no more than the territory of Sind. 26 But the name taking the form of “India” among the Greeks and “Indu” among the Chinese applied to a much vaster trans-Indus territory embracing the whole of the country. The names “Hindu” and Hindustan (with the Iranian territorial suffix - stan added) appear in Sassanid inscriptions, e.g., Shahpur I’s Kaba-i Zardusht inscription in the third century A.D. 27 From the Iranians, the name “Hind” passed to the Arabs. When they conquered Sind in 712-15, they clearly distinguished between the indigenous regional name “Sindh” (Arabicised “Sind”) and “Hind” or “Hindustan”, which they applied to all territory beyond Sind. This is well shown by the use of these geographical names in the Chachnama. 28 The Arab geographers of the 10th century clearly use “Hind” for the whole of India. But by the time Alberuni compiled his celebrated Kitab-al-Hind, c.1035, the nomenclature was well established in Arabic. For the people of India, the earliest territorial Achaemenid name, “Hindu”, now came to be used with the last vowel being elongated. Alberuni follows this usage.

It would be superfluous here to dilate on the immense achievement that Alberuni’s critical survey of Indian civilisation undoubtedly represents. For my present purpose, it is important to stress that “Hind” to him represented all land that lay between the Himalayas and the sea. And in his Chapter XVIII, which is devoted to details of its geography, these limits are faithfully observed. What marked this area as separate from the rest of the world was its religion, which to Alberuni was Brahmanism. He notes that the Samaniyya sect or Buddhism had practically disappeared from India so that Brahmanism which had earlier shared the stage with it was now solely dominant. The Brahman priestly language, Sanskrit, was the language of science as well. The caste system, Alberuni recognised, was a mode of class hierarchy that in general was recognisable in other civilisations as well, but in Chapter IX he describes the features of the Indian caste system that were unique to hierarchy here. Thus, to Alberuni, India’s (Hind’s) identity rested on the prevalence of Brahmanism, Sanskrit and the caste system, and “Hindus” were the inhabitants of India who lived under this religious, cultural and social order. To them or rather to their intellectual classes he attributed a fierce insularity. “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.” 29

Some may feel that such insularity has almost a contemporary ring about it. Four hundred years earlier, Yuan Chwang had no such impression: Chinese pilgrims penniless as they might have been were apparently welcome at all Buddhist monasteries in India. The decline of Buddhism in the next four centuries by removing a rival to Brahmanism made India look even to an insightful outsider like Alberuni a Brahman-dominated society, which also now provided it with yet another distinctive mark of identity.

The Ghorian conquest and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) brought with them all the violence and misery that military conquests always bring. On the other side of the medal was the fact that it brought into India a divergent cultural stream, which by faith might go back to seventh century Arabia but which also had its roots in Greek thought and science and what is now called the Persian Renaissance. 30 The influence of this stream on Indian culture has been deep and diverse, as Tara Chand’s classic work Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, Allahabad, 1928, illustrated in such detail nearly 90 years ago.

The word “Hindu” so far adopted by Iranians and Arabs for Indians now assumed a religious character, and began to be used for all Indians who were not Muslims. What is significant is its adoption by those to whom foreigners now applied it. It indeed replaced no previous word, for there was none doing service for it earlier. The word “Hindu” included everyone from Brahman to Chandala, and thus tended to suggest a single community, whereas previously only different castes or jatis and darsanas or religious sects or schools existed. By the mid 14th century even the Vijayanagara emperors were calling themselves Hindu-raya suratrana. 31 It is a strange play of history that those who till the other day shouted “Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan” did so without realising that every word of their slogan was Perso-Arabic in origin, received from the very cultural tradition that they were denouncing and desired to exclude from India.

There was the other side of the medal too. Despite much invective against Hindus for being polytheists (which fact Alberuni had incidentally refuted) and idol-worshippers, the Muslim immigrants were soon attracted to Indian languages, music, dance and other cultural traits. A pride in being Indian also grew, along with an admiration for the country. The celebrated poet Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) of Turkic descent claimed to be “a Hindustani Turk” 32 who would speak Hindwi (the Indian dialect) not Arabic. In 1318, he wrote in Persian what is perhaps the first patriotic poem for India in any language and included this long piece in his work Nuh Sipihr. In this long poem, which begins with the praise of India’s natural beauty and climate, the significant portion comes when it speaks of India’s achievements in philosophy and science, for which he gives the credit entirely to Brahmans. He goes on to claim that Hindus are monotheists. He praises Indians’ capacity to speak foreign languages while foreigners are unable to speak theirs. He commends the Brahmans for giving the world three gifts: the decimal-positioned numerals, the Panchatantra and the game of chess. After listing India’s major spoken languages, he highly praises Sanskrit, with its literature, which too he attributes to the Brahmans. 33 Such patriotism could blind him even to the rite of sati, or widow-burning, when he exults in the fact that “there is no more manly a lover than the Hindu woman, for where is the insect that can burn itself on a dead candle”. 34 The remarkable feature of such unalloyed Indian patriotism here is the glorification of a composite culture, created by the acceptance of an earlier tradition, along with an openness to foreign influences transmitted through proficiency in languages like Arabic, Persian, and Turki, specifically named. Even the knowledge of India’s three great gifts to the world had come to Amir Khusrau from the Iranian tradition. We see here the beginning of a new perception of India, where not a particular system of social organisation or religion supplied the unifying features, but the sharing of knowledge and wisdom.

Akbar’s theory

The next step was taken in the momentous reign of Akbar (1556-1605). On the perception of India held by Akbar and Abu’l Fazl, we have the benefit already of a detailed essay from the pen of the late M. Athar Ali, 35 which dispenses with the need for me to present the evidence again. Here, only the principal facts relevant to our present concern need be emphasised. First, India emerges, for perhaps the first time, very clearly as a political and not simply as a cultural entity. This is borne out by Abu’l Fazl’s well-known dictum that “Kabul and Qandahar are the twin gates of Hindustan” after which he adds that “by the possession [by Akbar] of these two spacious passages, Hindustan is made secure from foreigners”. 36 The implicit identification of Hindustan with the Mughal Empire here is also made explicit in the A’in-i Akbari where the account of the administration and provinces of the empire is followed by a long concluding section titled “Conditions of Hindustan”, which contains a long account of the culture of India. (It is unfortunate that the translator, H.S. Jarrett characteristically turns Abu’l Fazl’s reference to “Indians” into one to “Hindus” only. 37)

India as a political unit loomed large in the theory of the nature of sovereignty that Akbar and Abu’l Fazl espoused. In it the sovereign as a direct representative of God was not bound by any one religion since just as God’s bounty in this world falls on all irrespective of their faith, so should all people be recipients of royal benevolence without discrimination, under the principle of Sulh-i Kul, Absolute Peace. Clearly, this theory was framed to justify a mode of government suited to the needs of a religiously diverse population that India contained. 38

Though none of Akbar’s successors repeated his claim to a supra-religious status, the identification of the Mughal Empire with India, or rather “Paradise-like India” ( Hindustan-i Jannat Nishan), became an official commonplace. Even when the empire declined in the 18th century, independent powers, including the Maratha Confederacy led by the Peshwa, sought the Mughal emperor’s diploma for high office or local governorships. Without actual power, they still remained nominally the emperors of Hindustan. Having the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire in mind, Tara Chand had said that they served “to create a political uniformity and a sense of larger allegiance”. 39 It is possible that such “larger allegiance” could be accompanied by an evolving aspiration for the political unity of the country.

As historians it is important for us to recall that the first history of India was produced by Akbar’s official Nizamu’ddin Ahmad, Tabaqat-i-Akbari, in 1592. In 1609-10, Qasim Firishta wrote a still more comprehensive history of the country, Gulshan-i Ibrahimi, attempting to present even its pre-Muslim history and extending its geographical coverage to all parts of India. Many such histories then followed such as Sujan Rai Bhandari’s Khulasatu-t Tawarikh (1695) and Khafi Khan’s Muntakhahu’l Lubab (1731). Since all these histories were in the nature, more or less, of political annals, it is clear that beyond being a mere “geographical expression” India was now being seen also as a political unit. So, when the Mughal Empire remained only in name and British conquests had begun, the historian Ghulam Husain Tabatabai observed in 1781 that “the British statesmen are determined to carry out the conquest of the country of Hindustan”. 40 India now received yet a new political garb—as the object of colonial conquest.

When in early hours of 11 May 1857, the Meerut mutineers crossed the Yamuna to set the phantom Mughal emperor on the throne, as they thought, of Hindustan, they did not just ignite the greatest armed challenge to colonialism in the 19th century. They also proved that the notion of India as a political entity was not just confined to “elites” but one that could also excite the ordinary soldier, for it was he, and not any prince or landed magnate, who made Bahadur Shah accept, almost fearfully and unwillingly, the proffered sceptre. In almost all rebel proclamations, as much as in the last, their reply to Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858, they spoke of Hindustan, from Mysore to Punjab, that has suffered from British rule and needed to be freed, not just any particular region of it. 41 One can wonder how much this was the gift of the Mughal Empire, its universal currency and its claim to the loyalty of both Hindus and Muslims, which were all still a living memory.

Though India had thus assumed not only a cultural but also a political existence, I would still argue that India was still far from being a nation. This is not the occasion to enter into a discussion of divergent definitions of the term “nation” as it has come into use in political terminology since the French Revolution of 1789. I would argue that it requires not only a territory with population wishing to be governed by “persons from amongst themselves” but much more. The French Revolution which for the first time raised the call for independence of nations also inscribed on its banner the slogans of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. A country becomes a nation only when it aspires to have, at some level, a degree of equality for its citizens and so a universal brotherhood among them. This aspiration was non-existent in 1857. The India that the rebels were loyal to was that of a caste-ordered, hierarchically structured and religiously oriented country. Their heroism must not let us close our eyes to this central fact.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, in a letter of 1828, argued that “the distinction of castes, introducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions among them (Indians) entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling” 42. He was speaking here of Hindus, but the same could be said with some modification of all communities, and my point will be met if one reads “national” instead of “patriotic” in his text. It is here that the message of social reform that accompanied the Bengal Renaissance and subsequently spread to all parts of the country assumes so much importance when we consider how the Indian nation has come to be constructed.

Bengal Renaissance

So let us turn to the central message of the Bengal Renaissance. Irked by the crowds who went to listen to Keshav Chandra Sen’s lectures in London in 1870, Punch published two lines in derision.

“Who in this world of living men

Is Mr Keshub Chander Sen?”

It seems that in India today we need to ask the same question because he and his vigorous work for social reform in almost all its aspects, such as women’s rights, abolition of untouchability, modern education, inter-religious conciliation, which engaged him from almost 1858 to his death in 1884, stand almost forgotten when great names in the sphere of social reform are invoked today. Despite Keshav Chandra Sen’s increasing mysticism of later years, it is best to remember the tribute paid to him by Bipin Chandra Pal, which is also relevant to our purpose: “The Brahmo Samaj, under Keshab Chandra Sen had proclaimed a new gospel of personal freedom and social equality, which reacted very powerfully upon the infant national consciousness and the new political life and aspiration of Young Bengal.” 43 The social reform movement took strong roots also in Maharashtra and the Madras Presidency, besides Bengal, and helped to create throughout the country the basis for the “national consciousness” that Pal so explicitly recognised.

When the Indian National Congress met in Bombay in 1885 for its first session, the president, W.C. Bonnerji, spoke strongly in favour of social reform, but the Congress decided to restrict itself to political matters only. In the Hind Swaraj, written in 1909, Gandhiji is remarkably cautious in respect of the disabilities imposed on lower castes and on women in India’s traditional society. Yet as the National Movement grew, the struggle for equitable society became a part of Gandhiji’s own Constructive Programme of 1920s and, at a fairly radical level, was reflected in the Congress’ Karachi Resolution on Fundamental Rights, 1931, drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru and moved formally by Gandhiji.

India thus becomes and remains a nation to the degree that the very traditional inequities that had in the past provided the marks of identity for it as a country are now restrained and eliminated. It is a veritable paradox. But if we wish to stand up as a nation, we have to break loose from our millennia-old history of social oppression.

In one respect, however, we can appeal to our past. If India has had a history, unfortunately, of religious dogma and intolerance, it has also a contrary tradition of religious coexistence. Asoka’s Rock Edict XII of over 2,250 years ago can still resonate with us just as Akbar’s religious tolerance seems to have a contemporary ring [to it]. In his Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji declared with absolute clarity that the nation had nothing to do with religion, and so he called on people of all religions in India “to live in unity”. Secularism is therefore an irremovable pillar of our nationhood. Any weakening of secularism by divisive forces, which have grown so strong today, will endanger the very bonds that tie our nation together.

Nation emerges from freedom struggle

Finally, it is always necessary to remember that India grew into a nation in the course of its struggle for independence. Contrary to the idea promoted by the communalists of the day that India suffered 800 years of “foreign rule”, the fact is that the rule of one country over another whereby part of the wealth and income of the subject territory is transferred forcibly to the ruling one, and its markets are similarly seized by the other, is a modern phenomenon linked to the rise of colonialism—beginning with Columbus and Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th century. In India it began recognisably with Plassey (1757). Resistance in the governed country remains local or regional, as it was in India even in 1857, when more than half the country continued to be unaffected. Here it was mainly the increasing realisation of the consciousness of being exploited that played a radical role in the making of a subject country into a nation, emerging as a radical counterpart of what Benedict Anderson calls the “official nationalism” of the imperialist countries. 44

In this we in India owe a deep debt to the “Grand Old Man” of our national movement Dadabhai Naoroji, and the other “economic nationalists”, such as R.C. Dutt, G.V. Joshi, G. Subramaniya Iyer, and others who rendered undying service to the Indian people by exposing the scale and mechanism of colonial exploitation. They made possible the linking of the people’s economic interests with the freedom movement—as Jawaharlal Nehru so well recognised in his Autobiography, and as the late Bipan Chandra brought out in his masterly survey Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India 1880-1905 (1966). Even Gandhiji in his Hind Swaraj gives considerable space to Britain’s economic exploitation of India, based on his reading of Naoroji and R.C. Dutt.

The exposure of imperial Britain’s exploitation naturally raised the question of an alternative economic model for India. It was this that the early nationalists largely failed to provide. But for the Indian nation to embrace all its components, it was essential to define their position towards questions of land and labour. Ultimately, despite Gandhiji’s anti-industrialism, the Karachi Resolution of the Congress in 1931 promised land reform, state control of industries and labour rights.

An Indian nation was thus created, in which all classes of people could feel that they had a share. It was created not only in opposition to the British rulers but also in face of hostility from within, especially from the advocates of the “two-nation” theory, based on religious identities, headed by “Vir” Savarkar and M.A. Jinnah. Partition was the price paid. But in what remained of India, a dream was widely shared, one that moved Jawaharlal Nehru as well as his critics, a dream that India would stand forth as a secular, democratic and socialist republic. Today a different wind seems to be blowing, a wind hostile to everything that went into the construction of our nation. It is the duty of Indian historians not to let go unopposed a rabid misreading of our past that may well destroy the essence of what we have inherited and the humanistic values we wish to add to that inheritance.

Shireen Moosvi is Professor of History (retd), Aligarh Muslim University. From the text of the presidential address by Prof. Shireen Moovsi at the 77th session of the Indian History Congress, which was held in Thiruvananthapuram on December 28-30, 2016.

1. Cf. Fischer, Steven Roger (1999): A History of Language, London, pp. 57-58.

2. Ratnagar, Shereen (2005): “The Earliest Notions of India: ‘Meluhha’ in Mesopotamian Records”, in Irfan Habib (ed.), India: Studies in the History of an Idea, Delhi, pp. 1-18.

3. For the Rgveda the following English translation has been used: Griffith, Ralph T.H. (1973): The Hymns of the Rgveda, translated with a popular commentary, Indian reprint, J.L. Shastri (ed.), Delhi.

4. Griffith’s translation, op. cit., pp. 587-588, is inaccurate in the rendering of this hymn as far as the positioning of the rivers is concerned, for which lapse, see Possehl, G.L. (1999): Indus Age: The Beginnings, New Delhi, pp. 8-9

5. Cf. Gnoli, Gherardo (1989): The Idea of Iran: An Essay on its Origin, Rome, p. 55.

6. Griffith, R.T.H., tr, (1962): The Hymns of the Atharvaveda, 3rd edn, M.L. Abhimanyu (ed.), Varanasi.

7. For a detailed discussion on the 16 Mahajanapadas, see Raychaudhuri, Hemchandra (1997): Political History of Ancient India, with commentary by B.N. Mukherjee, New Delhi, pp. 85-136.

8. See for discussion, Gnoli, op. cit., esp. pp. 53ff.

9. Wagle, N. (1966): Society at the Time of the Buddha, Bombay, p. 39.

10. I here draw on the conclusions of Kosambi, D.D. (1956): An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay, Chapters 4 and 5; Sharma, R.S. (1958): Sudras in Ancient India, Delhi, Chapters II & III.

11. Kangle, R.P., ed. & tr, (1972, 1986): The Kautilya Arthashastra, Part 2, Bombay, 1972, Delhi, 1986, p. 407.

12. The edict has, of course, been often translated, but see, for an especially annotated one, Barua, B.M. (1943): Inscriptions of Asoka, Calcutta, p. 199-202.

13. For the latest and most detailed survey of these sites, see Falk, Harry (2006): Asokan Sites and Artefacts, Mainz, pp. 55-103. Since his survey, another copy of the Minor Rock Edict I has been discovered at Ratanpurwa/Basaha, Bihar. (See Epigraphia Indica, XLIII (2011-12), pp. 1-4.)

14. I should hasten to explain that my argument would remain unaffected by whatever answers one might offer to the important questions raised on the character of the Mauryan Empire in Thapar, Romila (1987): The Mauryas Revisited, Calcutta, pp. 1-31. It is only the fact of the extent of that empire, as testified by the spread of the actual sites of Asokan inscriptions, that is at issue here.

15. Krishnan, K.G. (1989): Prakrit and Sanskrit Epigraphs, 257 B.C. to 320 A.D., Mysore, pp. 151-58.

16. Barua, Inscriptions of Asoka, op. cit., p. 192.

17. Ibid., pp. 214-15.

18. Jaiswal, Suvira (1998): Caste: Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change, New Delhi, pp. 17 ff.

19. Ibid., p. 18.

20. For references in the Brihadarangayaka Upanishad, see ibid, pp. 29-30, n. 99. The Chhandogya Upanishad was translated by Max Muller in The Upanishads, part 1, London, 1890/reprint, Delhi, 1995, pp. 76-84. The claim that the secret belonged to “the Kshatra class” alone and not to Brahmans occurs in this Upanishad in V 3.7 (Max Muller’s translation, p. 78).

21. Quoted in Habib, I. and V. Jha (2004): Mauryan India, New Delhi, pp. 124-35.

22. Buhler, G., tr., (1886): The Laws of Manu, Oxford, p. 33.

23. Watters, Thomas, tr, (2004): On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India (AD. 629-645), Vol. I, T.W. Rhys Davis and S.W. Bushell (eds), reprint, Delhi , p. 131.

24. I-tsing (1896): A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (AD 671-695), J. Takakusu (tr), London, p. 118.

25. There is a lucid discussion of Yuan Chwang’s account of India by Grewal, J.S. (2005): “Hiuen Tsiang’s India”, in I. Habib (ed.), India: Studies in the History of an Idea, New Delhi, pp. 60-81.

26. See the following for one such inscription: Herzfeld, E. (1998): A New Inscription of Darius from Hamadan, Memoir of the ASI, No. 34, Delhi, reprint, first published in 1928.

27. Yarshater, Ehsan, ed., (1983): The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3, Part I, Cambridge, p. 84.

28. The Chachnama has been edited by Umar bin Muhammad Daudpota Delhi, 1939. In this Hind occurs on p. 45 and Hindustan on p. 11, cf. Habib, Irfan (2011): “Linguistic Materials from Eighth-Century Sind: An Exploration of the Chachnama” in S.Z. H. Jafri (ed.), Recording the Progress of Indian History: Symposia Papers of the Indian History Congress, 1992-2010, New Delhi, p. 80.

29. Sachau, E.C., tr, (1910): Alberuni’s India, Vol. I, London, p. 22.

30. For a descriptive account of the “Iranian Renaissance”, see Yarshater, Ehsan (2000): Chapter 17.3, History of Humanity, Vol. IV, UNESCO: Paris, pp. 281-285. Somehow the account misses the spirit of scepticism and defiance nurtured by the Renaissance, so well represented in the apocryphal verses of Omar Khayyam.

31. The earliest use of this title by the Vijayanagara emperors I have been able to trace is by Bukka I in his Penukonda inscription of 1354, which is in Kannada (see Epigraphia Indica, VI, p. 327 & n).

32. Quoted in Mirza, M. Wahid (1974): The Life and Works of Amir Khusrau, Delhi, p. 22 & n, reprint, first published in 1935.

33. Mirza, M. Wahid, ed., (1950): Nuh Sipihr, text, London, pp. 147-195. On p. 150 he says of India that this is “my birthplace, my asylum, my native land” and further that “love of the native land is surely part of one’s faith”. For details see Rezavi, S. Ali Nadeem, “The Idea of India in Amir Khusrau”, in India: Studies in the History of an Idea, op. cit., pp. 121-28.

34. This is a famous couplet of Khusrau; I am unable to locate the work of his that it comes from.

35. Athar Ali, M. (2006): “The Evolution of the Perception of India: Akbar and Abu’l Fazl”, in Mughal India: Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society, and Culture, New Delhi, pp. 109-118.

36. Fazl, Abu’l (1892): A’in-i Akbari, Vol. II, Nawal Kishore: Lucknow, p. 192.

37. Cf. Athar Ali, M., op. cit., p. 114.

38. The theoretical bases of Abu’l Fazl’s theory of sovereignty and its relevance to the situation in India is brought out in Habib, Irfan (2009): “Two Indian Theorists of the State: Barani and Abu’l Fazl”, in D.N. Jha and E. Vanina (eds), Mind over Matter: Essays on Mentalities in Medieval India, New Delhi, pp. 29-38.

39. Chand, Tara (1928): Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, 2nd edn, p. 141.

40. Tabatabai, Ghulam Husain (1866/1897): Siyaru’l Mutakhirin, Nawal Kishore: Lucknow, p. 826.

41. Only an official British translation into English of the Awadh rebels’ reply to Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 has survived, which may be read in Rizvi, S.A.A. and M.L. Bhargava, eds, (2011): Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh: Source Material, Vol. I, New Delhi, reprint, pp. 465-68.

42. (1982): The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, J.C. Ghose (ed.), Vol. IV, Delhi, p. 929.

43. Quoted in Chand, Tara (1967): History of Freedom Movement in India, Vol. II, Delhi, p. 398. Emphasis added.

44. Anderson, Benedict (1983): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Chapter 6.